Tuesday, April 14, 2015

House Sitting and the Technology of Travel

A few weeks ago a coworker, who knew I was house sitting and assumed I was in a home office of some sort, asked me over instant message where I was at the time. I replied, "Right now I'm barreling down interstate 40 at about 75 mph." A few seconds later I added... "of course my wife is driving," so he didn't think I was working on a laptop and operating a high speed motor vehicle at the same time, because quite frankly I don't think there's even laws yet for that level of stupidity.

But seriously, people often ask me how I can manage to keep working with all the driving we do. Do you take a lot of vacation time? Do you work at night after you arrive? Do you lie about how many hours you put in? The answer is no, no and NO! The fact is, I do work from our car, and very effectively at that.

This week's route

 Writing this post from somewhere on I-76 in CO

Maintaining consistent connectivity from the passenger seat requires a special set of tools in order for it work properly. I had been taking this ability for granted until the other day when I was introduced to Xapo, a secure bitcoin wallet and storage provider, which motivated me to write this post about the various types of technology I use when we travel.

Personal Technology 

Before we sold our house and hit the road, Charli and I needed to take care of a couple of personal items. Because we could no longer receive mail at our old address, we made sure that all of our bills and banking transactions were set up as paperless. Then, for any straggling snail mail that still might come through the postal system, we changed our address to our son's house in Phoenix. Now, whenever he receives something that looks important, he takes a picture of the envelope and texts it to us. That way we can decide if we want him to open it and read it or send it to our latest house sitting location.

Online Business Requirements

Because I work for a global organization, I have to abide by one very simple rule… be online from 8-5 CST Monday through Friday. Our company uses a secure, encrypted VPN for all traffic between the employee and the corporate network, and once logged in we communicate primarily via a beefed up corporate instant messaging application, as well as through email and conference calls. So, to satisfy that, we make certain all the houses we sit at have a consistent high speed internet access, or we don’t apply for the gig.

It's worth noting that working these hours has advantages no matter where we are. For example, in Connecticut I don't have to be online until 9 a.m., which allows me to stay up later and enjoy a little night life every now and then. But in Hawaii I need to start working at 3 a.m., which sounds terrible until you realize that I get done at noon! This of course leaves the entire afternoon to play with my pail and shovel on the beach.

Cell Carriers

For the past 20 years or so Charli and I have been faithful Sprint users. We’ve always liked their “family and friends” plan and the unlimited data is perfect for a large family like ours. However, there are pros and cons to every cell phone company and unfortunately for Sprint, Verizon has better coverage and signal strength. I know this because at my last job I was issued a Verizon phone for work and during our travels Verizon would outperform Sprint consistently. Therefore, when it came time to make a decision about what carrier we would use to support our requirement of being able to work on the road, we went with Verizon. HOWEVER… the tradeoff for using Verizon is that we now have a LIMITED data plan, and with 6 people sharing it, I frequently end up at the end of the month sounding like a bad TV commercial... with me screaming at the kids to stop using Snapchat so much.

 Jet Pack

That being said, the core technology I use to maintain an online presence in our car is this Verizon Jet Pack.  
Sure, I could simply turn on the hot spot feature of my phone and broadcast wirelessly from it, but that would add additional strain to our already expensive monthly data plan. Therefore, I decided to go with an independent prepaid Jet Pack solution. With this I pay $60/mo for 3GB of data, which is more than enough for the type of work I do. To save data usage, I reserve all my large downloads and email archive activity for when we get to a hotel or new house. That way, the only burden on my plan is instant messaging and standard email traffic, which isn’t much. The only frustrating part of this plan is that it expires after 30 days is up, whether I’ve used the 3GB or not. If Verizon REALLY wanted me to be satisfied, they would allow us to simply use the data until it was gone and then renew as needed, but then I guess that’s how Big Cell makes their money.

(note: other prepaid plan options include 250MB for 1 week at $15 and 10GB for 30 days at $90) 

The Cockpit

SO... here is what my “office” looks like when we’re traveling.

 jet pack on the dash

 laptop on my lap, conference call on my phone

 the pilot

The Benefits of House Sitting

So far this arrangement has worked nearly flawlessly. In the last few weeks of traveling from Connecticut to Minnesota (and now on to Phoenix), I’ve only lost my internet connection one time for about 20 minutes while we were traversing a section of the Appalachian Mountains in GA. That’s pretty amazing in my book.

Here's the thing about house sitting...

Obviously, being able to work remotely is a great perk for anyone, but adding house sitting to your career plan provides huge benefits we never even imagined... benefits for both the employee AND employer. For example, because we are free to explore the country while we're (relatively) young, I am not simply schlepping through my job on a daily basis and pining for the day I can retire so I can do it then. Since we've started house sitting, my job satisfaction has increased dramatically and my productivity has never been higher.

I mean, come on... this is my "office" view right now as I type this post...

Do I need to say anything more?

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Chapter 6 - Moving On

I remember when I was 16, sitting in the basement with my friend and making big talk about how as soon as I graduated we were going to jump in his car and move to California, just like that. We didn't need a plan, we'd figure it out when we got there.  It was an exhilarating feeling, the thought of a new adventure with endless possibilities.  There didn't seem to be any reason we couldn't do it, and succeed!

But somehow things didn't work out that way.  By the time I graduated I had a job, college plans and, oh yeah... no money saved.

Fast forward to one year ago, me and Charli sitting in our living room and having this conversation. "So, whatta ya say we sell everything we own and hit the road? We can travel all over the country and live in other people's houses."  "Alright, let's do it!"

Ok, it was a little more detailed than that, but that was the gist of it. The point is, I experienced almost the exact same emotions that moment as when I was a kid... excitement, adventure and possibilities, but this time with butterflies, uncertainties and responsibilities sprinkled in for flavor. Nonetheless we did it. We made a decision and pulled the trigger and did it. And here we are today.

The cool thing is, this WAS the right decision. Right now we are finishing up a 3-month house sit in Connecticut and having a blast. In addition to the day trips I wrote about in my last post, we also had the opportunity to do these other amazing things during this time:

  • Tour the Vanderbilt Mansion and home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the Hudson River
  • See the original site of Woodstock
  • Eat at the Hard Rock Cafe in NYC
  • Walk the Poughkeepsie Bridge
  • See all the major sites in Boston, walk the Freedom Trail, and visit Harvard University.  We even took a trolley tour of the entire city, featuring this animated driver:
  • Visit Bridgeport, CT on the Long Island Sound and stop by the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, CT
  • Spend a day with Betty Ton and her wonderful family! Betty was one of my very first blog friends back in 2005.
  • Spend a day with Dale Snyder, an old friend from back in 1979 in Duluth, and the drummer of the first "professional" band I was ever in... Sleeper 
  •  Visit Lover's Leap State Park in New Milford, CT

So as you can see from this and previous posts, we've taken full advantage of this amazing opportunity to live here in Connecticut for the past 3 months. But now this time has come to an end and in one more week we pack up the car and hit the road again.

From here we head to the west coast for our next gig in Orangevale, CA, but not before stopping to visit nearly every family member we have. Here is our itinerary (click to enlarge).

Washington DC - lunch with Charli's niece
Durham, NC - dinner with my nephew and his wife
Athens, GA - a few days with Charli's sister and her family
Prestonsburg, KY - a night with Charli's other sister and her family
St. Louis, MO - a night with Charli's dad and her brother
Duluth, MN - a week with my entire family including my parents, brothers and sister and their families
St. Cloud, MN - a few days back in our hometown with everyone we've ever known over the last 20 years
Phoenix, AZ - a few days with our son Brandon
Oceanside, CA - a few days with our other son Austin
Orangevale, CA - our May house sitting gig
Ridgway, CO - our June house sitting gig

So yeah, I think it's safe to say we have a very exciting trip ahead of us!  Stay tuned as we continue to share our stories along the way.

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Monday, March 09, 2015

Chapter 5 - Day Trippin... The Big Apple

One of the reasons we were drawn to this gypsy lifestyle of living on the road was because it afforded us the opportunity to see the good old U.S. of A. in intimate detail.  What better way can you explore this country's rich regional wonders than by living right smack in the middle of them for extended periods of time?!

But because we have the responsibility of caring for people's pets, we can't just take off for days at a time and hope the animals don't get into trouble while we are gone, like by throwing a huge kegger for example. You just can't trust them like that. Instead, we see our sites by taking little day trips to the surrounding areas... sometimes with the pets, other times without (the exception being when we spent the weekend in NYC with some friends and we hired a friend of the owners to house sit for us).

A big benefit of site seeing through day trips is the lack of stress about the visits. For example, when you're on vacation for say, 7 days back-to-back, you feel an obligation to cram as many things into each day as possible so you don't leave anything on the table when you have to return home.  Here, we simply pick one nearby destination or event, visit for a few hours and head back home. Easy peasy! Not once have we felt disappointed that we didn't get our visit's worth.

A favorite day trip for us has been New York City. Just a short train ride in and BAM!... Manhattan! Just like that.  You hop in a metal tube in rural western CT and emerge in another dimension. Ok, Grand Central Station... but same thing.

Here are some of the things we've seen over the 5 times we've visited, including the extended weekend with our pals.

Homage to John Lennon

Strawberry Fields Monument
The Dakota, Lennon's apartment building

Times Square!
Me and Charli in the Kiss Cam!
Neon City

Staten Island Ferry
A gray and foggy day
 Rockefeller Center


From the Top of the Rock

Central Park



Other things we did that are not shown here were the incredibly powerful 911 Memorial Museum (allow yourselves no less than 6 hours if you go), the Brooklyn Bridge, St. Patrick's Cathedral, numerous subway adventures, and of course the best restaurants we've ever experienced, including one of the most important items from my personal bucket list... a slice of authentic NYC pie from Gino's Pizza, on E 83rd and 1st.

Mushroom and cheese... SO good!
Yeah, you could say we like NYC a little bit. Ok a LOT! In fact, we are constantly watching for house sitting gigs right in Manhattan, which have come up several times already, but unfortunately didn't fit our schedule.

So there you have it.... a little snapshot of the opportunities we've been afforded through house sitting. Stay tuned for the next post where I'll show you other day trips we've taken around Connecticut!

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Monday, February 16, 2015

Chapter 4 - House Sitting 101

Charli and I get asked a lot of questions now that we are full time house sitters, such as...
- What is house sitting?
- How do you find houses to sit at?
- Do you get paid?
- Do you pay them?
- Where can you do it?
- Have you lost your minds?

In this post I'll answer these questions and more!

Let's start at the top...

What is house sitting?
In general, house sitting is a way for people to leave their house for an extended period of time while someone else stays there to take care of their pets and provide a "lived in" presence.  There are many aspects to a house sitting arrangement, but in our case it typically involves caring for their pets, keeping their house and property clean and assisting with standard maintenance duties as needed.

How do you find houses to sit at?
There must be a LOT of people doing this because there are a LOT of web sites devoted to it. We have landed on two that have worked well for us:

House Sitters America - http://www.housesittersamerica.com/

Luxury House Sitting - http://www.luxuryhousesitting.com/

The process is kind of like a dating web site (I assume) but without all the lying and exaggerating. On these two sites, the sitters pay a small annual fee ($25-$30) and provide a resume that describes their interests, lifestyle, experience and a general case for why you would want to choose them.  The owners on the other hand do not pay anything. When the owners decide they need a house sitter they post an "assignment" on the site and every house sitter who has signed up gets a notification.

At this point, the owners will immediately start to receive applications for their request and will then have the task of reviewing them for consideration, much like an employer would in a new job listing.  After selecting the desired candidates, the owner will send a private message to the applicants letting them know they are interested in learning more about them.  From there the standard exchange of emails, phone calls, Skypes and Facetimes take place until the owners and applicants are both satisfied they have found a good match in each other.

Do you get paid? Do they get paid?
That depends.  Some house sitters charge for their services, we do not. Some home owners charge rent or utilities, the ones that we have applied for do not.  These criteria are normally spelled out in the assignment posting as well as the house sitter's profile.  It all depends on what the objectives are. In our case we are more interested in living in exciting places around the country and experiencing it at no cost to us, rather than lowering our desirability as a candiate by charging a fee. It's really a win-win for both the home owner and the house sitter when no money is exchanged.

Where can you do it?
Easy... EVERYWHERE!  And there is no better proof of that than us.  In just a few short months we have been lucky enough to find back to back house sitting assignments from coast to coast in beautiful and highly desirable locations for extended periods of time.  For example, we are currently living in amazing western Connecticut for 3 months, nestled in the Berkshire mountains and minutes away from the Appalachian Trail.  Following this we will spend the entire month of May outside of Sacramento, CA in a community surrounded by hiking and bike trails. From there we will spend June at 7500 feet in the Rocky Mountains of Ridgway, CO, in a beautiful house that has snow-peaked mountain views right out the window. After that we plan to spend July back in MN with friends and family only to return right back to Ridgway for round two in August!

Have you lost your minds?
No! Selling everything we own and traveling around the United States living in gorgeous places is the most sane thing we've ever done.  But our minds ARE blown by how amazing this lifestyle is. Not only do we get to experience new communities in intimate detail and make lifelong friendships with great people, but we also have the extreme pleasure of getting to know, and bond with, some very loving animals. Here in CT we can honestly say we have come to love Mickey, Henry and the birds like our own and will miss them dearly when we leave.

So there you have it... the basics of what house sitting is all about.  Please feel free to leave a comment here or on Facebook if you have any questions. We'd LOVE to tell you more!

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Friday, January 30, 2015

Chapter 3 - Beauty and the Beasts

I don't think there is a single definition of "house sitting" that describes all engagements, but based on what we've seen in the ads, 90% of them involve animals in one form or another... either pets, chickens, horses and yes, even ostriches.

In the house we're at here in Connecticut, we have the pleasure of taking care of Mickey and Henry... two of the sweetest dogs we've ever met who LOVE to go for rides in the car and walks in the woods.

AND, as if THEY aren't fun enough, we also have the pleasure of watching two adorable and VERY entertaining African grey parrots. Meet Tu-Tu and Koo-Koo

These birds have an amazing ability to mimic any sound or phrase, which is an endless source of amusement for us every day.  For example if I ask Charli a question, before I can even get it out of my mouth one of them will say "what?" so realistically human that I actually repeat the question.  I fall for it almost every time.  Well I used to.  I'm no bird brain after all.

Or when Koo-Koo decides he wants attention, he will let out a huge fart sound (usually timed when one of us bends over) and then laugh exactly the way Charil does... which of course only makes us laugh, which only delights Koo-Koo even more, and the routine goes on and on and on.   I'm quite certain we're going to have to apologize to the owners when they return, who will be forever left with Charli's high pitched laugh for years to come.

So these are the "beasts" per the title of the post. As far as the "beauty" part goes well let me just say that this part of Connecticut is stunning.  Every day Charli and I head out to one of the hundreds of trails that surround this area and every day we are in awe.  There are endless places to hike along the Appalachian Trail or Housatonic River.  Here's a picture I took just this morning in Macedonia Brook State Park, just 10 minutes from our house.

In addition to rivers, there are covered bridges


mountain lakes

and canopied trails

And then there is Kent itself, where we live, which is one of the most charming little New England towns we've ever seen.  Every business is a converted colonial style house and no "commercial chain" types of businesses are allowed.  So basically it's like walking around in a model diorama.

So yeah, this whole house sitting thing is working out pretty slick so far.  We love the pets, we love the area and we love the idea of seeing the country in intimate detail by getting to know the towns we live in. It's really quite spectacular.

And speaking of seeing things... make sure to tune in for the next installment: Chapter 4 - Day Trippin!

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Chapter 2 - The Maiden Voyage

In my last post I mentioned what inspired us to ditch everything we own and hit the road, besides the popular belief that we are experiencing a midlife crisis. Which we're not.  I think.

But today I'm going to start by talking about one of the key things that is making this new lifestyle even possible for us... telecommuting.

For most of the last decade my jobs have allowed me to work remotely from home, which is an amazing perk to have.  Except that it shouldn't be amazing!  It SHOULD be the norm, but that's a different topic for a different day.  The important thing is that as long as I have an internet connection I can do my job, which allows me the freedom to do it pretty much anywhere in the world (i.e. Hawaii, Las Vegas, in the passenger seat heading down Route 66)... provided I work during CST hours that is.

So, once the last of our kids had moved out there was really nothing preventing Charli and me from hauling anchor and moving on.  Which is where I left off with my previous post.

Dec 13, 2014
Since then, here's what we've been to: 

A slow ride to Vegas

Because our son Brandon wanted our living room couches, we decided to wrap them up, put them in our utility trailer and hand them off to him in Las Vegas where we all met up for Christmas. However, because this trailer had little baby wheels, I had to keep the speed down to 60 mph the entire 1600 miles, which also meant that I needed to stay off the interstates and take only state and county highways.

A fun side note... while driving through Colorado, we spent an entire day creeping down a 2-lane road in a raging blizzard at 30 mph, until we finally gave up and got a room in La Junta because we (and our Prius) just couldn't take it anymore.

A  very Vegas Christmas

Rosie and Charli at Red Rock Canyon
Why Christmas in Las Vegas?  Simple... it was a convenient meeting spot for our boys to drive to since one lives in Phoenix and the other in southern CA, and Rosie had to fly in from Hawaii anyway so it didn't matter where she ended up.  And to make it even more special, our bonus son DJ drove all the way out to Las Vegas by himself to make our family Christmas complete.

So yeah, we did the nightlife thing and it was awesome. Cirque du
Soleil's Mystère was beyond amazing and the magic of downtown Vegas did not disappoint.  But it was the day trips out to Red Rock Canyon National Conservatory, Valley of Fire State Park and Hoover Dam/Lake Mead that really made it special.

Here we hiked for miles, found ancient native American petroglyphs, toured the inside of Hoover Dam and even walked on the dried up bed on part of Lake Mead. These are the things that balance out the neon and make the Las Vegas area a truly amazing place to visit.


Finally after 2 wonderful weeks with all our children, including our boys' wonderful girlfriends, it was time to turn the car around and head out to Connecticut to start our 3 month house sitting gig in South Kent.  But along the 4 day journey we also had the opportunity to meet up with many friends and family!

First we stopped in St. Louis where we spent an evening with Charli's dad, brother and sister-in-law. Then the next day we had lunch in Indianapolis with Ray, my very best friend who used to live next door to us in St. Cloud for many years. On the third night we met up with Brenda and Lauren in Akron, OH... old friends from waaaay back, who we actually met the first time 24 years ago in our prenatal birthing class!

Finally on our last day on the road we had lunch with my good blogging buddy Kathy and her niece at a cool restaurant in Pennsylvania!

Which leads us to here and now... at a beautiful house nestled in the foothills of the Berkshires on the Housatonic River, just a few miles from the Appalachian trail. A dream come true for house sitting types like us.

Coming up next: Chapter 3 - Beauty and the Beasts

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Thursday, January 08, 2015

Chapter 1 - How We Sold Everything We Owned and Hit the Road

It all started back in March of 2013 when Charli and I decided to take a little 4000 mile road trip to see our kids... one in Phoenix and the other in Oceanside, CA. During this 2 week venture I was able to work in the passenger seat while Charli drove during the day, thanks to the magic of a wireless jetpack.

It was this trip where we first learned that we really liked road tripping together and decided that doing it more often would be awesome. We even joked about just selling all our stuff and living on the road full time.  Ha ha ha.

A few months later we ended up in Hawaii, house sitting for some friends of mine for a few weeks while they returned to the mainland for their daughter's graduation. 

It was here where we realized that house sitting was the coolest thing since sliced mangoes and  "theoretically" there was no reason we couldn't simply just sell everything we owned and do this full time!  Then of course after realizing just how impossible this would be, we laughed at ourselves for being daring enough to at least fantasize about it.  Ha ha ha.

But something happened... we couldn't stop thinking about it. Maybe it was a sting from an exotic tropical sea creature... but the itch wouldn't go away.

Finally, after more than a year of saying "why not?" to each other a hundred thousand times, on Sept 7, 2014 we just said "eff it - let do this!" and put the old homestead up for sale.

Of course now we had to figure out how to shed ourselves of 25 years worth of... well, everything. After raising 3 kids and accumulating a house and garage full of "things," it was no small effort to downsize everything we owned to fit into the back of a Prius.  Huge garage sales, enormous garbage pickups and countless cars full of donations later we were finally down to bare bones... just the furnishings in our house necessary to stage it for sale.

And then this happened on Nov 29, 2014

Fortunately for us the new owners decided they wanted to keep most of our furnishings and appliances, so we didn't have to have any more sales (whew)!  A few weeks later the final arrangements were done and we were ready to hit the road... just in time to meet our kids in Las Vegas for Christmas.

And here we go on Dec 13!

Coming up next: Chapter II - The Maiden Voyage

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